Homelessness arises when an individual’s circumstances collide with the realities of today’s housing market.

At its simplest, someone becomes homeless when they have to leave a place and cannot find anywhere else they can afford.

Sometimes people have to leave when they cannot afford the place they are in and are evicted through arrears. This can happen if their rent rises, their income declines or they cannot manage their finances. Common causes here are unemployment, poverty, physical or mental illness, bereavement, benefit cuts or addiction.

People may have to leave their accommodation when a tenancy is not renewed (for example when a landlord wants the property back); when there is breakdown of the relationship between partners or between a young person and their family; or when the person with whom they have been staying can no longer accommodate them for some reason.

Some of these problems relate to unwise life choices, which in turn may have resulted from an unhelpful upbringing. Many of these problems could happen to almost anyone, but the impact is greatest where people have inadequate financial reserves or family networks to fall back on. The largest single immediate cause of statutory homelessness in England at present is the ending of a private tenancy.

If there was plenty of affordable housing then there would be very little homelessness. However, the reverse is the case in our region, where we see:

  • a long-term decline in the supply of social housing
  • a rise in rents in the private sector
  • ten welfare reforms – detailed below, some still to be introduced – that have increased the rate at which people are becoming homeless and have made it harder for people on benefits to access even such housing as is available
  • extra incentives and higher rents offered to local landlords by London boroughs seeking to house their own homeless people in Wycombe
  • bed blocking in hostel and move-on accommodation for homeless people, as it has become much harder for their residents to leave for mainstream housing
  • massive cuts in one of the main government schemes supporting homeless hostels and the like – “Supporting People” funding and its successors declined by 56% in real terms between 2010/11 and 2015/16
  • a resulting disproportionate reduction in places for those with the highest support needs who are the most expensive to accommodate.

Some homeless people qualify for housing help from the council.  They may then be allocated some form of mainstream housing.

At Wycombe Homeless Connection, we are there to help those who do not qualify. Our aim is to make sure that they are not unfairly excluded from accommodation, by helping them overcome obstacles to accessing housing. We do this by providing clients with housing and benefits advice; through help to deal with officialdom; and through support to allow them back into work. WHC assists clients to find appropriate accommodation, whether social or private rented housing, hostel, rehab, therapeutic community, or through reconnection elsewhere. And we provide tenancy support to those resettled into independent living accommodation to help them achieve independence and stability.

The impact of welfare reforms

  • Withdrawal of crisis loans– DWP Crisis loans used to be the main way that homeless people could fund rent in advance to move into accommodation. Since they stopped in April 2013, charities and local authorities have struggled to come up with a patchwork of solutions to cover the gap.
  • Localism Act– Local authorities have been given much greater powers to set their own policy regarding the allocation of social housing. Someone must now have lived in Wycombe for two full years and be free of any unresolved rent arrears in order to be on the social housing list. Many other local authorities have done the same, and now many people are unable to meet the criteria in any single local area.
  • Local housing allowance changes– Housing benefit is now only set to cover the cheapest 30% of properties in a given local area (it used to cover the cheapest 50%). This means there is less accommodation available to people on benefits.  As a side-effect, some London boroughs are housing some of their homeless people in Wycombe where the rents are relatively cheaper. This restricts the housing supply available to local people.
  • Shared accommodation rate– Below a certain age, people are only entitled to the shared accommodation rate of Housing Benefit, intended to cover the rent on a room rather than on a flat. This age has been raised from 25 to 35, so more people are competing for a diminishing supply of rooms.
  • Bedroom tax– Despite the public controversy, the bedroom tax has not had a huge impact on the number of people who have actually ended up on the streets. It has caused difficulties for some people who cannot afford to pay the rent on their current accommodation yet cannot find anywhere smaller to move, but up until recently most of these cases we came across were covered by what are known as ‘discretionary housing payments’.
  • Benefit cap– The overall benefit cap at £26,000 has had very little effect so far on housing in Wycombe, but the next one may prove to be more significant.
  • Removal of entitlement to Housing Benefit for EEA nationals who are job-seekers in the UK – in April 2014, Housing Benefit entitlement was removed from EEA nationals whose only right to reside in the UK was as a job-seeker. This has increased the number of EEA nationals coming to us for help.
  • Introduction of Universal Credit (UC)– Under UC as originally announced, it was to be exceptional for Housing Benefit to be paid to the landlord rather than the claimant. Landlords feared this would lead to arrears and largely turned away from tenants on benefit. More recently this aspect of UC has been somewhat modified. However, the damage has been done.
  • Local housing allowance freeze– The rate paid for Housing Benefit has been frozen even while private sector rents are going up and very little social housing is being built. In practice this means more and more places will gradually become unaffordable, particularly in London and the Southeast.
  • Further reduction in the benefit cap– In Wycombe the cap has been reduced from £26,000 to £20,000 annually, and this may have a more significant impact on homelessness, specifically for larger families who will struggle to afford suitably-sized accommodation.
  • Further reforms are being discussed which could have an impact on homeless people.